# What is the significance of 153 fish?

John 21:11

Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.

Is there any significance to the number 153? Or was it counted simply to quantify the miraculous catch?

• I found a GREAT answer at this website.....very interesting :) Praise God!!! home.earthlink.net/~bobseller1/id89.html – user519 Apr 10 '12 at 15:40
• I would strongly recommend getting Richard Bauckham's "The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple" and reading the last chapter, "The 153 Fish and the Unity of the Fourth Gospel." The other chapters are great too but this last one would give you much food for thought. It did for me, anyway. – Mallioch Apr 15 '12 at 1:52
• Does the 153 have any significance in light of gnostic beliefs? – Onorio Catenacci Jan 31 '13 at 1:30
• The number 153 has a key multible numerical value, found in the mathematics of the Pyramids in Giza. Trying to find the link if any! – user3086 Dec 12 '13 at 0:12
• The seven disciples dividing the fish, it is automatic for fishermen, found that it lacked 1 (one) fish for the perfect division, the total of 154, which divided for each disciple results in 22 fish, however, Jesus asked for a fish, resulting in two fish, the number 2 (two) There is evidence for the fish, and it is the number of the testimony of the bread that came down from heaven, of the fishing of men into the kingdom of heaven, and that even after all the persecutions, it was on fire. – Betho's Mar 2 at 15:00

Short Answer: Many have come up with various numerological interpretations of the number 153 in John. I believe this to be reading into the text things not intended by the author.

As the two previous answers to this questions illustrate well, this numerological method allows for several different interpretations of the same passage. Each of the words in the Bible, both Greek and Hebrew, adds up to a number. It is no wonder that of these over 10000 words (most with several different tenses/forms), one can use arithmetic to derive one word/number from other words/numbers as one sees fit, and read meanings into it.

To illustrate my point, here are some other numerological interpretations of 153:

• Jerome claimed there were 153 species of fish, thus the catch became a symbol of a fruitful mission as fishers of men.

• Emerton notes that the streams of living water flowing from the temple in Ez 47:9-10, will have fishermen standing along the shore, from En Gedi to En Eglaim. "Gedi" has the numerical value 17, and "Eglaim" has the numerical value 153, and 153 = 1+2+3+4+.....+17. Thus the number represents all the fishermen.

• Augustine also noted that 153 = 1+2+3+4+.....+17. 17=10+7, which is the ten commandments + the seven spirits of God.

• Gregory the Great reaches 17 the same way, but multiplies it by 3, the number of the trinity, to get 51, and by 3 again, unto perfection, to get 153.

• Others break 7 further down into 4+3, the number of walls in the new Jerusalem + the trinity

• Yet others observe that 17 is the number of loaves of bread in the feeding of the 5000 + the number of baskets picked up after (=12+5).

• Others note that 153 is the numerical value of the phrase "The church of love" or "the children of God" or "Cana G" (+ "Cana in Galilee").

• Some see the number made up of "Simeon, Bar, Jonah, Kephas".

• Thoma finds 153 to be a reference to ICTHYS (a common early Christian acronym, standing for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior").

## Conclusion

As D. A. Carson observes,1

"Large quantities of ink have gone into explaining why there should be 153 fish. At the purely historical level, it is unsurprising that someone counted them, either as part of dividing them up amongst the fishermen in preparation for sale, or because one of the men was so dumbfounded by the size of the catch that he said something like this: ‘Can you believe it? I wonder how many there are?'"

I agree: this event made such a lasting impression on John, that he remembered the exact number of fish they picked up. Just as he remembered the name of Malchus, whose ear Peter severed. I read no more into 153 fish, than I do into the 2000 donkeys in 1 Chr 5:21.

1 D.A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Pillar NT Commentary; Eerdmans, 1990), p. 672.

• Another interpretation I found is that there were 153 nations known to the Greek/Romans at the time. I've heard it in some homily, but didn't find the source. – Pavel Apr 10 '16 at 9:27
• You could add in: Theophylact, who said that the 100 represented the Gentiles, 50 the Jews, and 3 the Holy Trinity; Augustine who related 153 to thrice 50 - representing Pentecost - plus 3, again representing the Holy Trinity. I think your explanation is best, though. It probably just means lots of fish. – user33515 Mar 30 '17 at 3:22

While some have argued for some kind of symbolism in the number shown here, there is no direct support from the text. The notes from the Net Bible indicate the following direct implications:

• This may have been a larger-than-average catch (especially in context of the following phrase - the net didn't tear under the load)
• This may be indicative of blessing in following obedience to Jesus
• The precise number is indicative of an eye-witness account

Given John's background as a fisherman, details like this would probably have been natural observations.

• I'd add to this that when they earlier caught a great catch at Jesus' command, the nets broke. This time they did not. – Frank Luke Feb 1 '12 at 16:30
• The mention of "153" large fish is simply part of a sentence intended to remind the reader of the miracle; that "although there were so many, the net was not torn." – Jas 3.1 Dec 7 '13 at 3:35

As far as I can find out, this is the only time "153" appears in the Bible. I searched through some of the apocryphal books too.

Here's Wikipedia's page on the biblical number 153.

I don't really care for all the square-root-of-the-triangular-circle-number woowoo stuff, but the fact that

It has also been noted that the Tetragrammaton occurs 153 times in the Book of Genesis.

Is interesting.

• I count 164 times that the tetragrammaton appears in genesis in the masoretic text. – Gus L. Jun 16 at 23:26

As noted by Richard Bauckham among others, it is clear that John (or whoever one may think is the final author/editor of John's Gospel and of Revelation) used the total quantity of occurrences of key words as a mathematical reinforcement or "signature" of the message of the text. Thus, Revelation contains the words Christ 7 times, Jesus 14 times and Lamb 28 times, each quantity of occurrences being a multiple of 7 and their sum being 49 (= 7 x 7) [1], facts which can hardly be the result of chance. For the purpose of this answer, I will call this composition feature "logonumerical structure", from "logos" = word.

Let us now note that the catch of 153 fish (Jn 21:1-13), which can be viewed as sign #9 of John's Gospel (sign #8 being the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus), comes after the 1st stage of the Gospel's conclusion (Jn 20:30-31), which contains the last occurrences of the following 4 significant words, next to each of which I indicate within () its total quantity of occurrences [2]:

• sign (17),

• believe (98),

• Christ (19),

• zoe: life in the sense of supernatural and eternal life, partaking of divine life (36).

Thus, if we accept the notion that John provides logonumerical structure to his works, we can understand the quantity of 153 fish right after the 1st stage of the Gospel's conclusion as providing "the one who has understanding" (Rev 13:18) with the key of the logonumerical structure of the Gospel, as:

• 153 is the 17th triangular number, with 17 being the total quantity of occurrences of the word "sign";

• 153 = 9 x 17, corresponding to the catch being the 9th sign;

• 153 = (98 + 19 + 36), the sum of the total quantities of occurrences of the other key words which appeared for the last time in the 1st stage of the Gospel's conclusion.

Finally, 153 is the gematria value of "sons of God" in Hebrew ("benei haElohim") [3], so that the catching of 153 fish can be additionally understood as adding a textual signature to the 1st stage of the Gospel's conclusion as I indicate below within []:

"Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name" [and thus be counted among the sons of God].

References

[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, Cambridge University Press, Mar 4, 1993. https://books.google.com/books?id=So0hIAMtTs0C

Text on word frequencies quoted and commented in: Steve Moyise (2005), Word frequencies in the Book of Revelation. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/3133/fc31ad6a2df1ceb73ea480ea07dc04c81e89.pdf

[2] Richard Bauckham, The 153 fish and the unity of the fourth Gospel, Neotestamentica Vol. 36, No. 1/2 (2002), pp. 77-88. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43049111

Summarized in: Keith L Yoder (2013), Gematria and John 21. https://www.umass.edu/wsp/publications/alpha/v1/a1-33-gematria.pdf

[3] Brian Pivik, Gematria and the Tanakh, Lulu.com, Jul 13, 2017. P. 164. https://books.google.com/books?id=E9ItDwAAQBAJ

## Symbolic Use of Numbers in John

Many scholars have noted John’s use of symbols. Craig R. Koester says:

The significance of numbers has long fascinated and frustrated interpreters of John’s Gospel. The evangelist seems to have structured some, though certainly not all, aspects of the narrative in groups of seven: seven signs, seven “I Am” sayings, and sometimes seven scenes in a given episode. More problematic, however, is the symbolic value of the numbers specifically cited in the text, such as the Samaritan woman’s five husbands, the invalid’s thirty-eight-year illness, and a catch of 153 fish. Interpretation is difficult because even in the ancient world a given number might be given many different meanings in a single context; Philo’s treatment of the numbers in Genesis 1, for example, shows how easily interpretations could proliferate. Moreover, larger numbers were usually treated as the sum or product of smaller numbers; and since various combinations could produce the same result, the interpretative possibilities expanded accordingly. 1

Koester goes on to say the 153 fish, the 38-year illness, and the 5,000 who were fed are probably not symbolic; they just happen to be the number of fish, years, or people. I believe this reasoning fails to give proper consideration to the uniqueness of John’s work.

Seven is recognized as symbolic because seven has previously been identified as a symbol. If the number of the fish had been a recognizable symbol like 70, the size of the catch would be taken as symbolic. The potential flaw in failing to study 153 as symbolic is really based on works of others, not what John has done. It rejects symbolic meaning to 153 in John (despite John's use of numbers symbolically) primarily on the basis of other's works.

One may dismiss 5,000 as just a number especially since it is used in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in a similar context. In this case John can be seen as affirming the number and its prior use. But 38 and 153 are specific suggesting they are not chance numbers and since these numbers are hardly (if at all) used elsewhere in Scripture, prior use contributes little to the question of how John uses these numbers.

If it can be demonstrated John uses unique numbers in a symbolic manner, then it follows the number 153 should be examined for its symbolic use.

## Unique Number Symbolism in John

The healing of the invalid at the pool of Bethesda and the blind man at the pool of Siloam can be used to demonstrate the number of years is symbolic in both cases. First the healing at Bethesda:

Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. (5:2-3,5 ESV)

John begins by describing a scene at the "House of Mercy" (the meaning of Bethesda) with five colonnades, or porches. Augustine and others saw five as symbolic, representing the Mosaic Law. [Commentaries on John 5:2] Jesus chose a man who had been unable to walk for 38-years (not one who had been blind) in the House of Mercy with a representation of the Mosaic Law. In this case, the number 38 takes on additional significance since it corresponds to the number of years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness after rebelling when they heard the report of the spies (Numbers 14). Now the healing parallels the history of Israel: just as the nation waited 38-years with the Law in hand, the invalid had been waiting 38-years to enter the pool first. Jesus told him to rise and take up (ἆρον) his mat just as Joshua told the people to move out to enter the Promised Land when they saw the Levites take up (αἴροντας) the Ark of the Covenant (Joshua 3:3 LXX also vv. 6,8,13,14,15,17). There are other connections to the Old Testament:

But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not walk in my statutes but rejected my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; and my Sabbaths they greatly profaned. (Ezekiel 20:13 ESV)

For 38-years the house of Israel did not walk in His statutes and they greatly profaned His Sabbaths. Arguably, they did not have correct knowledge of the LORD God, yet were not utterly destroyed because of His mercy. Now Jesus heals a man who could not walk for 38-years and who does not know Him. This takes place in the House of Mercy on the Sabbath and Jesus is accused of profaning the Sabbath. Clearly 38 is more than "just a number" of years and has been used to support the meaning of the overall passage. It is a unique symbol.

Next, consider the man “born” blind whose age is never stated. The sign comes after Jesus spits on the ground, makes mud, and tells the man to go wash in the pool of Siloam. He does and can see. Like the invalid of 38-years, this healing occurred on the Sabbath.

John chose signs for a specific reason:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (20:30-31 ESV)

This means he not only selected the specific sign, he chose the number (seven), and determined their arrangement. Any seven-fold pattern recalls the seven days of creation and John’s choices may be compared to the events of creation: The creation of man took place on the sixth day. The use of water and dust describe how man was created 2 and a later opening of the eyes is also part of the story of the first man (Genesis 3:7). Both the healing and the creation of the first man share common elements. This is reinforced when this sign is arranged as the sixth of seven signs. Stating the man was blind from “birth” is the “number” which fits the symbolic meaning. In this case the failure to use a number is symbolic.

Note the symbols only work if they described and arranged in the manner found. If the man had been blind 38-years and the invalid paralyzed from birth, the symbolism dissolves. If the invalid of 38-years was sent to Siloam where there are no colonnades, there is no corresponding significance to the number 38. Likewise, if the man blind from birth was not the sixth sign, the symbolism fades. All of these taken together shows John has a symbolic use in view.

Since John uses numbers as established and unique symbols throughout, it is appropriate to consider the symbolic meaning of 153 fish. In his book Koester sets forth his guidelines for understanding symbols:

Our approach has been to distinguish core from supporting symbols, so that if numbers do function symbolically, it is in a supporting capacity. Numbers may acquire significance through association with the central images, persons, and actions in an episode, but the primary meaning of an episode never depends upon a number. 3

The number 153 may be a unique symbol, but it does not determine or change the message of the overall passage. 153 may be an obscure symbol, but it cannot obscure the meaning found without understanding the symbolism.

## The Catching of Fish

Since John was written last the Gospel of Jesus Christ is brought to a close with the disciples making a great catch of fish, recalling an event at the beginning of the call to discipleship:

And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:4-11 ESV)

For Peter, John, James, and possibly others, their place within the collective Gospel narrative ends in a similar fashion to how it begins: with a miraculous catch after an unsuccessful night of fishing. There are common and different elements. Specifically John notes the fish remained in the net and were dragged to shore, not put into boats.

The Gospel makes a third mention to a large catch of fish:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age… (Matthew 13:47-49 ESV)

The Kingdom of Heaven parable is drawn from the catching fish used in the context of judgement found in the Old Testament:

The sovereign LORD confirms this oath by his own holy character: “Certainly the time is approaching when you will be carried away in baskets, every last one of you in fishermen’s pots. (Amos 4:2 NET)

Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the LORD, and they shall catch them... (Jeremiah 16:16 ESV)

The catch in John has been constructed with parallels to the Kingdom of Heaven parable; in particular it is men who drew the full net ashore where the fish are counted. These similarities suggest the significance of the number 153 is to be found in the roles men will have in the judgement process.

In John the main element is the exchange between Jesus and Peter where Jesus asks Peter three questions. After Peter responds Jesus gives Peter three different instructions:

• Feed my lambs (21:15)
• Tend my sheep (21:16)
• Feed my sheep (21:17)

A symbolic use of the number should follow this pattern and be divided into three parts. Peter's instructions contain two types of work, feed and tend and two different animals, lambs and sheep. This suggests the three parts are not identical. Rather two of the three should be the same. Of course all three numbers must have significance to judgment and relate to 153.

The ideal candidate for the two alike is the number 70. It was the number of years the people were exiled to Babylon and is symbolic of judgment. The simplest use of a pair of 70’s is to add them together to make 140. This leaves a remainder of 13, a number which can be connected to both the disciples and judgement:

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19:28 ESV) [also Luke 22:30]

There will be 13 thrones for 12 apostles and Jesus to sit in judgement.

The symbols also work to support the three instructions Peter receives. Tend My sheep alludes to Peter’s leadership position relative to the other disciples; feed My lambs and feed My sheep alludes to Peter’s role in sharing the Gospel. The two different groups may represent Gentiles and Jewish people or new and mature believers. Since Peter has fed them, he is better able to judge them.

In fact there is a present tense sense of the meaning of judgment: judge whether someone is a lamb or a sheep and now feed them accordingly. If they do not know the Gospel, share with them; if they have believed, continue and make them into disciples of Jesus. Similarly "tend My sheep" refines the interpretation when seen in the context of Peter's role as the leading disciple. Peter must also tend his fellow disciples. The distinction may be seen in the context between Christian witness and fellowship. The current disciples have already been fed by Jesus and have received the Spirit of Truth. Their biggest need is “tending” not “feeding.”

The number 13 is amenable to other interpretations. As Jesus is standing on the shore, He can be removed from the 13 and Paul could be added. Also the 2 70’s can be arranged in the same sequence of Jesus instructions to Peter:

• [70] Feed my lambs (21:15) – exercise judgement on witnessing
• [13] Tend my sheep (21:16) – tend to the other disciples
• [70] Feed my sheep (21:17) – exercise judgement on the 12 tribes

All of the symbolism “works” and serves to support the primary meaning of the passage.

Notes:
1. Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, Augsburg Fortress, 1995, p. 264
2. Both water and dust are implied: "and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground..." (Genesis 2:6-7 ESV)
3. Op. cit. p. 266

The seven disciples dividing the fish, it is automatic for fishermen, found that it lacked 1 (one) fish for the perfect division, the total of 154, which divided for each disciple results in 22 fish, however, Jesus asked for a fish, resulting in two fish, the number 2 (two) There is evidence for the fish, and it is the number of the testimony of the bread that came down from heaven, of the fishing of men into the kingdom of heaven, and that even after all the persecutions, it was on fire.

• I don't exactly understand your answer. It sounds like this is an argument about symbolism, but there aren't enough details to really know what this interpretation is getting at. Would you consider adding more details? – Jon Ericson Mar 2 at 21:39

As noted in a comment to the original question, Richard Bauckham has a chapter regarding the 153 in his book, “The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple.” I will provide quotes from an article in Neotestamentica, Vol. 36, No. ½, (2002), pp. 77-88, which goes by the same title “The 153 Fish and the Unity of the Forth Gospel.”

Point 1 – 17 and 153 Connection:

According to Bauckham, Johns entire Gospel is structured around the numbers 17 and 153. So the mention of this number is John 21 is not a coincidence. In his article, Bauckham notes a number of other examples within John that also fit the 17 / 153 pattern. To Bauckham, the 17-153 connection provides unity for the entire gospel.

Of the number 153 – it is a “triangular number.” If you start adding 1+2+3+4….+17 = you will arrive at the number 153. Bauckham notes that “triangular” numbers are quite rare and attracted great interest:

“both types of numbers – triangular and perfect – are quite rare and they were of considerable interest for ancient mathematics and numerical speculation”

This is not “reading into the text.” Scholars are well aware of the unique use of numbers, counting, etc. within the text of the Bible and other ancient writings.

Bauckham writes:

“153 is a triangular number, the triangle of 17. This is unlikely to be accidental. There are not very many triangular numbers (153 is the 17th of the series) and they were well known to ancient people interested in such things. One other triangular number appears explicitly in the NT: the number of the beast 666 (Rev. 13:18).”

666 is also a triangular number. The 36th of the series. 1+2+3+4…+36 = 666.

Point 2 – Ezekiel’s Vision with En Gedi and En Eglaim:

Bauckham, as well as others, connect the 153 in John 21 to Ezekiel 47 and Ezekiel’s vision of the river of water flowing from the Temple. The water flows east into the desert and brings the Dead Sea to life:

Then he led me back to the bank of the river. When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river. He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. (Ezekiel 47:6-9)

The next verse is the most important for this question:

Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading of nets. The fish will be of many kinds” (Ezekiel 47: 10)

The word “En” (Ein), in this context, means spring. So, this verse would read “Spring of Gedi” to the “spring of Eglaim.” (Ein is also the Hebrew word for eye and fountain).

As mentioned above, biblical authors regularly use numerical techniques within their writing for emphasis or connection. One of the best known is called Gematria.

“involving the calculation of the numerical value of a word written in Hebrew or Greek letters. (In Hebrew and Greek, the letters of the alphabet also serve as numerals, and so every word has a numerical value which is the sum of the numerical values of its letters).”

In this case, the numerical value of the word “gedi” = 17 and the numerical value of the word “eglaim” = 153.

Point 3 – Eglaim?

Here is an important point about the word “Eglaim.” Scholars don’t know where “En Eglaim” is. There is speculation, but nothing is certain. The location of En Gedi is known and is a popular place for tourists to visit. I discussed this matter with my professor, Dr. Carl Rasmussen, who himself has published a Biblical atlas, and he said nothing can be identified for certain about the location of En Eglaim.

This is perplexing because water in the desert is life. Everyone knows where the springs are because it is a matter of life and death. It seems unlikely that if “En Eglaim” were a prominent spring that we would not be able to identify it.

We must remember to read Ezekiel’s vision as a “vision” which is full of symbolism. Symbols must be understood properly. We don’t assume the river flowing from the Temple is literal – it represents the Spirit of God flowing out from Jerusalem in the Messianic age to bring life to the world – even the Dead Sea (except the salt marshes, those are good). John also uses this imagery from Ezekiel 47 in Revelation 22.

Since Ezekiel is describing a mystical vision where symbolism speaks loudly it is possible that the name “Eglaim” is chosen for its symbolic value – the number 153. This would be a numerical connection to “gedi” - rather than a specific geographical location. This would stand out to the ancient readers who would not be familiar with that spring but familiar with the literary use of numbers. The meaning of this would be to communicate the completeness of the river of life bringing life to the world.

Point 4 – John’s other references to Ezekiel 47 in his Gospel

If the 153 were the only allusion to Ezekiel 47 we may be able to dismiss it more easily, but it is not. In John 7:38 we find Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles making a comment on “living water.”

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. John 7:37-39.

The central theme of the Feast of Tabernacles is “water” and the Temple. (See Raphael Patai, Man and Temple)

What is the meaning of “the Scripture has said?” This is not a direct quote of a passage of Scripture, but as Bauckham notes, to two different texts: Ezekiel 47 and Zechariah 14:8

8 On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter.

Additionally, Jesus uses the Temple imagery of Ezekiel 47 to connect this fount of living water to himself.

Point 5 – Fishermen and Nets

An obvious connection between Ezekiel 47 and John 21 is the mention of fishermen spreading their nets to fish. The disciples are engaged in fishing when they see Jesus in John 21.

Summary

The 153 fish in John 21 is an allusion to Ezekiel 47 and the vision of the Spirit of God going out to water the earth. This is not another of the seven signs of John. Jesus has been brought into his glory. What is the evidence of this glory? The 153 fish.

Some of the previous thoughts on numerological interpretations are very good ones; as someone else has said “there is no direct support from the text”. I believe there are numerous times in Scripture where certain numbers are used symbolically, to emphasize, and those include 10’s, 12’s, 100’s, and 1000’s being used in calculations.

At this point in John’s last chapter, Jesus having died at the calculated age of 33, the new 12 need to take over for him, with Simon Peter leading.

Within a few verses is John 21:15-17

John 21:15-17 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these? “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” (KJV)

I think the 153 might symbolize the total of 120 (12, just 10 times) with Jesus’ 33 added.

Jesus was having breakfast with seven disciples, soon to be apostles who were among the only eleven men told that they would be the ones to get the ball rolling prior to Jesus's ascension. Why 153? There is only one other place where that exact number is used, 2 Kings 1. Three sets of fifty and their captains of fifty. 153 exactly. I believe Jesus pointed to that part of the Scriptures to basically "dump" the disciples at the place where they should begin to fulfill their commission; a place that surrounds them in "before" and "after" chaisms between Elijah and Elisha, the center of the huge chain or chaistic structure being 2 Kings 2:11, something easy to miss but incredibly important; "as they were walking along and talking together..."

The contrast between Elijah and Elisha are quite stunning. Elijah was a prophet of God's judgments against the northern kingdom. Except for the Gentile widow's son's resurrection, Elijah was an instrument God used to execute judgment or deliver bad news prophesies to kings, mostly to Ahab; the very last being the Ahaziah death episode in 2 Kings 2. Two sets of 51 were judged, but the last set were shown mercy; 153; two judgments and one act of mercy; the hairy guy WENT DOWN with the last set of 51 to prophesy to Ahaziah that a dirt nap was in his immediate future.

That's where I think Jesus sent the disciples, specifically to that location in Scripture. The very next chapter after the untypical act Elijah performed (mercy) begins the "this is how you do it now" contrast between the law, obedience to it and judgment (Elijah and the old way) and continual demonstrations of undeserved grace to mere, scant demonstrations of others' faith (Elisha and the new way).

And look at how the new way began, right off the bat at Jericho. Salt (covenant) in a NEW bowl, hint, hint thrown into the source of cursed water makes the water pure. Isn't that what we have now in this age? A new covenant, a new age or as Paul says in Ephesians, a dispensation of grace.

As the life of Elisha is followed, more and more examples of grace are demonstrated (axe head floating, poisoned pot fixed, Naaman, the barren woman plus her son's resurrection, resurrection of the enemy soldier who simply touched Elisha's bones); all very different than Elijah.

Anyway, that's just a tiny example of why I believe Jesus used that number specifically. The disciples, especially the seven (and most certainly three of the seven) met intimately with Jesus shortly before His ascension and session. Although it isn't mentioned in John, I would imagine there was a pregnant, "So now what do we do Lord?" And like Jesus, he makes you think it out for yourself like He did so many times throughout the gospels. "153 fish? Hmmm, I wonder why that exact number popped out of the net? I wonder if that number means anything to the only eleven people in the world who were told to make disciples? Hmm, I wonder. I wonder if Jesus is trying to tell us something and where would we find what He is trying to tell us? Where else is that exact number, if at all, is used in the Septuagint?" Well, I wondered for years myself and by studying and looping 1 Samuel through Esther in my GoBible for almost three years during my daily workouts, I think that's why 153 is significant. The new covenant is illustrated and contrasted between Elijah and Elisha in that part of the Scriptures and the seven disciples (and we now) need to know and understand the differences.

• Hi Ken, welcome to the site. This was a very interesting answer... you seem to be an intelligent person and devoted Christian. However, this site is a bit different than Christianity.SE. Take a look at our tour page when you get a chance. We don't handle doctrine, opinions, sermons, or "truth-claims" (unless build solidly from the text). On this site we look for answers that are firmly founded in the text in question, show their work, and cite credible sources wherever possible. To improve this answer, consider editing it to aide non-Christians in following your logic exegetically. Thanks! – Jas 3.1 Dec 15 '13 at 3:57

153 represents all the types of fishes in the Tiberius at that time. It simply means if you consciously fish you can catch all types of fishes. Or Christianity will be able to accommodate all types of people and still it can stay unbroken.

What is the significance of 153 fish?

The account is about Peter's reconciliation to Jesus. Jesus was about to ask Peter to be the doctrinal leader of the new church. [1]

Peter was not yet reconciled with Jesus.

1. This was the third time that Peter had seen Jesus since his resurrection. [2]

2. Peter had previously been a fisherman and was going back to his old life. [3]

3. He was leading 6 others (total 7) into the dark. [4] Seven representing 'all', he was leading all of the disciples into the dark.

4. He was fishing in the dark all night(requiring grace) [5]

5. Jesus had already told him that he should live in the light. [6] his was a sign that he was returning to his old life.

6.At the first light, Jesus appears to them. This is reminiscent of the resurrection (a new beginning) [7]

1. Peter was naked (sin exposed) [8]

2. And fishing (making his livelihood) in the flesh [9]; on the left side [10] (in the flesh)

Peter begins his repentance by clothing himself and casting himself, like Jonah did, into the sea. [11] He is placing his judgement in God's hands.

Jesus begins the reconciliation with a meat offering, which is a fellowship offering. Jesus asks if they have meat. [12] He is offering reconciliation to Peter.:

2. Bread and fish represent everything man needs to live in Christ.

2a. Bread represents the cross [14] and 'every word which proceeds from the mouth of God'.

2b. Man lives by the cross and every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.

Mt 4:4 But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.

2c. Jesus fed the 4000, the 5000, and now the disciples on the shore, bread and fish.

2d. Fish represent 'every word which proceeds from the mouth of God'.

2e. Jesus did not wait for the catch to prepare the meal. The fish, the 'every word' that he fed them, came from him.

2f. The act of eating together is an act of forgiveness, because in that culture (even today) one does not eat with an enemy. The 23rd Psalm reflects the peace that God has caused between enemies. [15]

Jesus emphasizes Peter's role with a special miracle. The other six disciples could not pull in the catch of fish, but Peter did it single-handedly. [16] This was a reminder of the position Peter had before Christ, when he had previous experienced the special miracle of walking on water. [17] It reminded him that he could walk on water when he had his eyes on Jesus. [18]

He finishes the reconciliation with the dialog with Peter. Not only does he ask him if he loves Jesus, but Jesus indicates his trust in Peter, three times, to feed his sheep.

This was the third appearance of Jesus after the resurrection to the disciples. The first one he was heard, the second he was seen (examined his scars), and the third one he walked with Peter down the beach. This is the same hearing, seeing walking theme we see so often.

With that background we can see the 153 fish. Peter first had to be reconciled to Jesus before he could do the special miracle of teaching; feeding the lambs and sheep.

1. Peter could not even feed himself through his old occupation of fishing, but Jesus was asking him to feed his sheep. What would he feed them?

2. There were still 153 fish from the catch that had not been eaten. Jesus had provided the meal.

3. Previously we discerned that the fish represent 'every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.

4. Eating is a metaphor for learning. The clean animal ruminates (meditates) on teh word of God and it produces a separated/holy (split hoof) walk/life.

5. Peter would teach 'every word which proceeded from the mouth of God.

Why 153?

There are 144 (12 x 12) for the dual-natured 12, God's people in the flesh and spirit, and 9 (3 x 3) more for the duel-natured 'fullness of God incarnate'; Christ in flesh and spirit. The fellowship meal for the sheep would be enjoyed by Christ and his church together.

1. Paul teaches that marriage represents Christ and the church. [19]

2. Paul says that the woman should learn from her husband. [20]

3. Therefore Paul teaches that the church should learn form (eat with) Christ, and we receive 'every word which proceeds from the mouth of God'.

Footnotes

1. Joh 21:15 ¶ ... Feed my lambs. Joh 21:16 ... Feed my sheep. Joh 21:17 ... Feed my sheep.
2. Joh 21:14 This is now the third time that Jesus shewed himself to his disciples, after that he was risen from the dead.
3. Mt 4:18 ¶ And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers.
4. Joh 21:2 There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the [sons] of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples.
5. Joh 21:3 Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing.
6. Joh 12:46 I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness.
7. Joh 21:4 But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.
8. Joh 21:7 ...Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt [his] fisher’s coat [unto him], (for he was naked,)
9. Mt 25:33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
10. Joh 21:6 And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. ...
11. Joh 21:7 Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord. Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt [his] fisher’s coat [unto him], (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea.
12. Joh 21:5 Then Jesus saith unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered him, No. {Children: or, Sirs}
13. Joh 21:9 As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread.
14. Lu 22:19 And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake [it], and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.
15. Ps 23:5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. {anointest: Heb. makest fat}
16. Joh 21:11 Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three: and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken.
17. Mt 14:29 And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.
18. Mt 14:30 But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. {boisterous: or, strong}
19. Eph 5:32 This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.
20. 1Co 14:35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
• numbers have to have a space after the period: 4.<space> or it doesn't make a new line, and renumbers hard coded line numbers. – Bob Jones Jul 13 at 23:19